When I was a kid growing up, I was taught that it was polite to make eye contact. I guess the thinking was that it showed the person you were talking to that you were paying attention to them, not focused on other things. I get that. I see it with my oldest daughter. I can usually tell what she's paying attention to by where her eyes are pointed. "Look at me," I'll say to her, wresting her gaze away from the television long enough to see that she's listening to me. I'll watch as her eyes slide surreptitiously around me, not out of discomfort, but out of desire to be away from the conversation and back to the TV.
I was also taught that avoidance of eye contact indicated someone was afraid to make that eye-to-eye "soul-connection" because they were lying to you. I learned from movies and books that thieves and liars could be caught when a well-trained detective, focusing on their eyes and body language, experienced an ah-HAH! moment associated with the suspect's inability to meet his accusor's eyes. In college I had a manager (cool guy, actually) who loudly extolled the virtues of eye contact, and the virtuelessness of those who couldn't or wouldn't make it. I remember in particular one candidate for a retail sales position (we're talking minimum wage stuff here) that he immediately dismissed based entirely upon the "shiftiness" of his eyes. "I don't trust someone who won't meet my eyes when I'm talking to him," he told me.
Overall, I was aware that it was expected of me...of anyone...to make eye contact.
...Politeness, attention, truthfulness, cultural conformance...those seem like important things, I think.
I don't have any particular difficulty looking people in the eyes, but when I was young I remember actively thinking about it while talking to someone. Thinking about eye contact...focusing on maintaining it...while talking.
My wife and I have had conversations about my "autistic" traits, and we talked about this one last night. When I was growing up I looked at people's mouths. I wasn't really aware that I was doing it until a classmate busted me for it. I slowly realized that I defaulted to the mouth because I had an epiphany related to the impossibility of focusing on two eyes at once. You can SEE both, but you can only truly focus on ONE. THIS realization led me to shift my focus back and forth, rapid-fire from eye to eye in a ridiculous ping ponging literal interpretation of "You must make eye contact". I didn't know which one to look at (focus on) so I looked at both.
Have you ever talked to someone who is blind in one eye? Or has a glass eye? Or a lazy eye? I feel like I'm being rude if I'm staring at the "wrong" eye, like I'm focusing on the "bad" eye instead of looking at the good and they'll judge my attention akin to staring. And it's not always clear initially (with someone who has lazy eye) which one is the "right" one to look at. Is it being polite?
All of this was going on in the back of my mind any time I was conscious of it being an "appropriate" time to look someone in the eye (e.g. job interview). I'm not kidding. The focus thing, followed by the shifting from eye to eye thing, followed by the bridge of the nose (so I could see both eyes, though I truly was focused on neither), followed by an awareness that by looking at the bridge of the nose I wasn't looking at the eyes...followed by a realization that...I WASN'T PAYING ATTENTION TO THE PERSON TALKING TO ME! To use the job interview example, I would be so focused on the eye contact thing and its importance that I would realize I was being called upon to answer a question and had no idea what that question might be. Was I being attentive?
Last night I went to an Autism Acceptance presentation at my wife's work. One of the presenters was an attorney who discussed the transition from childhood to adulthood, and setting up finances and trusts and so forth. The other presenter was Rebecca Klaw, an advocate who does autism consulting for schools and attends IEP's (from her website: "consultant, trainer and advocate for children with Autism Spectrum Disorders (ASD) and their families."). Her presentation, "Transformation or Celebration," called upon her audience to examine the validity of a few well-held neurotypical societal ideals...like the importance of eye contact. This reminded me I'd been meaning to write a post on this and I probably seemed a little rude because I immediately opened my iphone notes and jotted down a couple things I'd been thinking about before she dug any deeper into the eye contact thing. But my wife didn't notice because she was busy making eye contact with Ms. Klaw.
She used the example of a client of hers who had approached her at a function or in the community to tell her about the progress her son was making, and she specifically pointed out that he was coming along nicely with his eye contact, informing her that he could hold eye contact for TEN SECONDS! She then had everyone in the room pick a partner and told us that when she said "Start" she would measure ten seconds and we were to maintain eye contact with our partner for the full duration. It was, of course, ridiculous, and an impossibly long-seeming amount of time. I picked my wife and although staring into her eyes for 10 seconds was like gazing into paradise, had I picked ANYONE else in the room, it would have been painfully embarrassing and awkward. Her point was well made.
I thought...how arbitrary is it to set a durational goal on maintaining eye contact?
How do you follow up the lesson on eye contact (a lesson you have doubtless drilled into your autistic child for months and months and months) with the even more obscure rules on sexual innuendo, open flirtation, or brazen staring? How do you get THAT lesson across? How many months? And how important is it REALLY?
Even what we feel we "know" about the cultural appropriateness of maintaining eye contact only applies to our American culture...it's not the same in the Middle East, or Asia, to say nothing at all of those people who have moved to the US FROM those cultures, blurring the rules still more. How am I conforming to cultural norms when those norms differ from person to person, culture to culture possibly within my own community? How then do I teach THIS to my autistic child?
When I was a kid I wanted to be the kind of detective who could always catch a lie. Alternatively, I wanted to be the sort of super criminal would could lie undetected. If I were to lie undetected I knew that I primarily needed to focus on my body language, specifically my eye contact. There are, no lie, grown-ass men who believe to this day that you can't possibly lie to them if you maintain eye contact throughout. I remember focusing on maintaining eye contact through lies to friends (in jest) and really having no difficulty with it. "But you looked me right in the eye!!!" Yeah...I did. I looked you right in the eye and lied to you. And it was easy. You cannot tell someone is a liar by looking into their eyes. Can. Not.
The most ironic thing about this is that so many neurotypical people believe the best way to appear honest and open or have a lie pass undetected is to focus on maintaining eye contact. This causes the strange side effect that the only time they truly FOCUS on maintaining eye contact is when they're also focused on making a lie believable. In other words, you'll know they're lying because they'll pointedly NEVER break eye contact. Does that prove trustworthiness?
Eye contact is not that big a deal. It's a neurotypical "bad habit". I inwardly cringe to hear other parents proudly tell me how they're drilling their child on it. For what? Cultural appropriateness? It's arbitrary. Integrity? It's a lie. Attention? Then you weren't paying attention. Politeness? I'm offended. The truth is, eye contact, while often useful is NOT necessary and often inappropriate unless your end goal is to make your child appear to be someone he is not...someone "passing" for someone you wish he was.
Stop making such a big deal out of it.
My friend, Bec, has an excellent post on eye contact called, "What's the Deal with Eye Contact?" You should read it. Really. It's very informative, and comes standard with bolded topic sentences and 'bottom lines' that are actually AT the bottom. In other words, her posts are more structured and easier to understand than my ramblings. In the article she talks about some of the reasons why it might be important NOT to encourage your child to make eye contact and she talks about reasons why it might be difficult for your child.